Ethics of Tragedy in Hegel

Hegel addresses tragedy in The Phenomenology of Spirit  and in the Aesthetics.  On the face of it, The Phenomenology says hardly anything about tragedy.  However, tragedy is very much present in the discussion of ethical world and ethical action in the ‘Spirit’ section of the Phenomenology which contains two brief references to Sophocles’ Antigone. Hegel writes at some length directly on tragedy in Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, a much later text.  The discussion of tragedy ends the lectures, appropriately as Hegel brings in a version of his end of art argument there.  The last post had a few things to say about that.  Tragedy is identified by Hegel as the highest form of art, and as a culmination of art.  I’ll sum up some ideas from the two books below, but without references as this is a blog not an academic publication.  I am working on this in an academic context, and will be writing something longer with full referencing there.  The account below is more inspired by Hegel than an exact account of Hegel’s approach.

A large part of that elevated status of tragedy, maybe the major part is its ethical status.   This is ethical in Hegel’s sense which refers to the customs and habits of a people rather than to moral theory.  That distinction was revived by Bernard Williams in the late 20th century, though without much reference to Hegel.  The historical period in which moral theory becomes an issue is the period in which tragedy dies.  The birth of tragedy is almost simultaneous with its eat in Hegel’s view.  Tragedy exists in its pure form only in Aeschylus and Sophocles.  Euripides, who represents third generation of tragedy after Aeschylus and Sophocles, is already decadent in Hegel’s view (foreshadowing Nietzsche’s view).  That decadence had been noted by the comic dramatist Aristophanes.  

What is usually regarded as the first moral theory in philosophy emerges in the time of Sophocles and Euripides in Plato and then in Aristotle.  Plato draws on the the ideas of his teacher Socrates, and was also drawing on, and reacting to, the Sophists.  We have no dşrect knowledge of the teachings of Socrates and the Sophists though, Plato is oır main source in both cases.  Though Hegel does not say so directly, hşs account suggests that tragedy belongs to the end of ethics in its pure state, in the moment in which moral theory is born.  The idea of ethics as divine law preceding any deliberate reflection, or decision making, by humans is itself present in tragedy, but tragedy also questions it.  Tragedy questions the existing customary ethical assumptions, in articulating them and even articulating them less clearly than in Plato or Aristotle.  The moment of articulation is the moment of criticism.  So defending customary ethics is completely tangled up with its critique.  Tragedy does not directly criticise customary ethics, but does express great suffering and incomprehension at the order of the universe.

Hegel sees Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as an expression of the way that customary ethics divides against itself.  Oedipus follows opportunities without reflection when he murders King Laius (not recognising him as his father) and marries Laius’s widow Jocasta (not recognising her as his mother).  The completely natural way of life, which follows customary ethics spontaneously is shown to allow for sin, and therefore must divide against itself.  For Hegel tragedy is about conflicts of points of view which have gods beneath them.  This is itself a reference to the way the Greek tragedies show gods, and the conflicts between gods, at the basis of terrible events in the life of the hero or a whole family.  

As we see in Oedipus, the conflict can be between the natural and the less natural aspects of ethics, that is between acting without thought and acting on reflection based on knowledge.  That becomes the conflict between human and divine law in Antigone. Hegel may not have realised that Sophocles’ three Theban plays, Oedipus at Colonus in addition to the two just mentioned) were from separate trilogies written at different times, and only brought together because of the loss of all the other plays from those three trilogies.  Hegel provides back story to Antigone in his view of the development of Greek ethics before Socrates and the Sophists.  The family buries its dead members, in a move which simultaneously affirms and contains the importance of the earth and of death, and any associated divine forces.  The burial of the dead, and the ways the dead are preserved in memory are basic to the existence of the family, which is itself necessary for the existence of other ethical institutions.  The starting point for Antigone is that Creon forbids everyone to mourn and bury the body of Polyneices who had attacked the city to take it from his brother.  Antigone, brother to Polyneices, comes into conflict with Creon on this issue, and is condemned to be placed in a  tomb herself.  This looks very connected with Hegel’s account of the relation between the family and its dead members, in which women are important.  Women act as the guardians of the most material, elemental and customary aspects of ethics, and of the life of the family itself.  The woman’s connection with her brother who she is not linked to by sexual desire and who is not the product of any sexual union of which she is part, is itself a major ethical aspect of the family, which is necessary for the family to have ethical meaning.  Universality and national life as associated with men, which we can link with Creon, ruler of Thebes, in Antigone.  

The play contains reconciliation at the end, as all tragedy does, according to Hegel.  He refers to he way that Creon realises he has made a mistake incurring divine displeasure, but too late to prevent the suicide of Antigone, followed by the suicide of Creon’s son who was engaged to Antigone, followed by the suicide of Creon’s wife.  Two women and one young man are sacrificed leaving Creon still in power.  In an abrupt Hegelian leap, the reconciliation in Antigone, that is Creon becoming wiser with regard to divine-feminine law, is followed by the move to a Roman ethics, based on isolated individualism under a more systematic form of state law.  Antigone’s sacrifice is an end to tragedy and is the end of the Greek participatory city state, replaces by the Roman state of non-political individuals under law.  The reconciliation of divine-feminine law and human-male law at the end of Antigone must be understood then as  the greater articulation of state law, to give more rights to individuals who are now isolated from the formulation of law, and the government of the state.  Antigone dies because civil law cannot incorporate her one sided commitment to her brother, divine law, along with the forces of the earth, and the forces of death.  That ethics is ground out by civil law in the Roman world, which is surely the victory of Creon, who represents the universality that Hegel wants in both ethics and tragedy.  Tragedy must rises above subjective drives, sympathy for suffering (which Hegel associates with ‘provincial women’) and singularity.  That is all about rising above the female, confirming the sacrifice of Antigone as necessary to the moral order of the Roman state.  


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